Three and 0 was a mirage.
We know that now, even those who had been unwilling to admit it before.
Look, Tennessee was ever memorable, just going down to Knoxville and shutting up 100,000 frothing loudmouths. But those wins over tinman teams from San Diego and Kansas?
Let's put it this way, those teams, they're no Stanford.
We can say as much after Stanford 24, UCLA 16. Now the Bruins fall to 3 and 1, the mirage having melted into a crisp sunny breeze on a Saturday afternoon by the Bay.
But Bruins faithful, don't lose heart. Not now. The reality is that UCLA remains on the upswing. The Bruins showed enough for you to keep believing. If after this game you're looking for cynical bashing, read somebody else.
They were far from perfect, that's true. Paragraphs could be spent on whether the play calling was too conservative for too long. Vanilla? For long chunks, it wasn't even that.
What mattered most, however, was that UCLA showed real gumption -- enough to take knockout blows and keep hanging.
At halftime, judging by the statistics -- the Bruins nearly lapped in first downs, total yards and time of possession -- it was difficult to believe Stanford led merely 14-6.
Then the third quarter begins. There are Stanford's bookish bullies, muscling their way all over the field, posting a quick 10-spot on the back of Toby Gerhart, the human pile-driver from Norco who finished with 134 yards and three touchdowns.
Nothing looked good for the Bruins then. The defensive line was getting knocked on its collective fanny. Safety Rahim Moore, the national leader in interceptions, stood on the sidelines, gone for the day with a concussion. Behind center was quarterback Kevin Craft, last year's unfairly maligned whipping boy.
Despite all this, the Bruins kept kicking and clawing. They launched a nice little comeback, kept the outcome in question until a few ticks past one minute remained. A completed pass here, a better block there, maybe, just maybe, this game goes to overtime.
It was a tough loss. More was expected after a 3-0 start and two weeks off. But let's take the long view here. The Bruins are not yet strong, fast and experienced enough. What they must rely on are intangibles. How hard they fight. How long they can endure. This game proved they've got these qualities.
Now, with a difficult stretch of games looming -- no real breather until Washington State on Nov. 14 -- we'll see what they can take from this.
A few seasons back, I never thought I'd be writing the following sentence: Let's see if the Bruins can learn from Stanford, a team that's become a fine model for UCLA.
Think about it. A few season back, the Cardinal fielded a 1-11 team. Then they bring in Jim Harbaugh and he brings a new attitude . . . and look at them now -- strong, smart, ornery and currently perched atop Pac-10.
"They've done a nice job of establishing an identity," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said as he sat in a corner of the locker room after the loss. He scanned a stat sheet, his eyes homing in on one name: Gerhart.
"Whew, he got the ball 30 times [31 counting receptions]. Now that's bangin' it. That's what we'd love to have, only we want to be able to spread it around more . . . play with more skill on the outside."
He looked out at his players, who were packing their bags for the flight home. I noted that this was Harbaugh's third season, that he's had one year more than the UCLA coach to put a solid stamp on things. His team had shown as much during this game.
"I don't want to say we are that far behind a team like Stanford," Neuheisel replied. "But it's going to take time. One more year of our program. One more year of conditioning so we're bigger and stronger. It's going to take time, but we're seeing good things."
When Neuheisel left, I walked the locker room to check the vibe. It was nothing like the dour mood after so many losing games last season. After this loss you could feel the depression, but also an assured calm.
Rahim Moore actually smiled, a surprise since he'd literally blacked-out following his fusillade hit on one of the game's key plays: Stanford third down, a pass overthrown, Moore's blow ruled a personal foul that kept alive a touchdown drive.
Tellingly, neither that hit, nor this game, was enough to dim his optimism. He assured that even with all the other difficult games still to come, this will end up a fine season.
"Maybe it's good that we lost, that we aren't undefeated," he said. "All the good teams lose. Everybody can't go through this without a setback. We can learn something from this. We can leave here feeling confident. . . . We've got a lot of belief."
The 3 and 0 mirage is a mere memory now. But hope still exists.